Civic Virtue: Definition & Contributions of the Founding Fathers

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

When the American colonists developed the radical idea to declare independence, they had already put a lot of thought into that decision. In this lesson, we'll discuss one of the key concepts they relied on and see how it impacted their lives.

Civic Virtue

We're all together in this, right? I mean, we are all parts of the same societies, and whether or not the society succeeds or fails will impact each of us. Since we all want our society to be successful, we'd better work together to make that happen. See what we jut did here? We basically just outlined the moral compass of the American Revolution. When the American colonists decided to declare their independence and form their own nation, they put a lot of thought into it. Can we morally do this? How do we justify this? Is this right or wrong? These sorts of questions were debated back and forth, which meant that the revolution was built on both intellectual and moral foundations. It had to make sense, and it had to be morally right.

One of the key concepts they relied on to make these decisions was that of civic virtue, or the personal devotion to the success of the community. They argued that a successful society required good citizens, citizens who lived more for each other than for personal interest, and that being a colony of an empire prevented that. So, they had a moral and logical justification for revolution, and they went to war knowing they were all in it together.

Civic virtue was at the heart of early American political attitudes

The Enlightenment and the Republic

Before we talk about the American Revolution, let's back up just a little bit. Where did the colonists get these ideas in the first place? Europe in the 18th century was at the height of a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment, which stressed individual logic and the quest for universal scientific, political, and moral truths. Isaac Newton proposed the theory of gravity as part of the Enlightenment; those are the sorts of universal truths we're talking about. In moral and political senses, scholars searched for absolute truths within society, such as the idea that all humans had basic, inalienable rights. However, Enlightenment scholars believed that in order to find these truths, individuals must be able to pursue their own fates, and that they had to choose, voluntarily, to do what was best for all of society. So, civic virtue was at the basis of the perfect enlightened society.

Now, if civic virtue was required for the perfect society, your society needed to embrace things that encouraged civic virtue. The thinkers of the Enlightenment came to the conclusion that the republic was the best form of government because it required citizens to stay politically active, to control their own lives, and to protect their own liberties.

American Republicanism

So, who were all of these Enlightenment scholars that proposed a republic society filled with civic virtue? There were several prominent philosophers in France, Britain, Scotland, and the Netherlands, but also quite a few in the American colonies. You see, France and Britain were monarchies, and those kings didn't want to give up their power. The American colonies, however, were distanced from the king, and educated Americans began debating Enlightenment philosophy. They came to the conclusion that civic virtues were absolutely necessary for a functioning society and determined that not only was a republic the best way to protect people's rights, it was actually possible.

Together, they combined Enlightenment philosophy with the traditions of the ancient Roman Republic and came up with American republicanism, a distinct political philosophy which claimed that government was supposed to be the common pursuit of moral citizens. Basically, good government can only come from all of us working together and being active in our political society. But why listen to me? Why not just hear this straight from John Adams himself? As Adams wrote in 1776:

We ought to consider what is the end (purpose) of government before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree that the happiness of society is the end… All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.

Stories of civic virtue from ancient Rome, such as the one in this painting, helped shape American political attitudes

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